Beef churrasco has a wonderfully elemental, almost primitive appeal. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. Spicy strips of seared beefsteak are served on warm flatbreads, and topped by a sharp, herby sauce spiked with green serrano chili.
The allure of beef churrasco’s flavor-packed honesty is sort of primeval. I reckon it’s the type of meal that sociable cave-folk might have enjoyed after a pleasant day’s hunter-gathering, and a nice wash and brush-up in their bubbling, hot spring.
But, in my imagined version of Cave Town, all is not serene. There’s a rumble in the jungle. Why? Well, a cookery site out of the same stable as Vogue has gone public with a ‘no more beef recipes’ announcement. Curious, that. Epic, certainly.
My worried reaction to this alarming news was to visit my favorite store early next morning — so early in fact, the shutters were still being pulled up — to check that sanity still prevailed at the butcher’s counter.
Happily, all was as it should be. The blockman, Bongani, and I saluted one another as we always do, and grumbled a bit about the chilly weather. Then I sauntered off to the check-out with two pounds of thickly cut, grass-fed rump steak. And a half-ish pound of creamy-white beef fat. “From the top the oxtail”, Bongani said. “It’s mahala.” Free. For nothing. A beautiful gift.
My beef-loving world might have been wobbled a bit on its axis, but, no matter, I had churrasco on my mind. That’s skewered slices of spiced steak cooked hot and fast — traditionally over a bbq’s fire — but just as dandy done in a big, hot skillet. Also, I was thinking of an easily-made Argentine flat bread that‘s catnip to fans of all good bovine things.
Hand in hand with these cheering thoughts was another lovely idea: a chimichurri sauce that was going to be a nicely fiery partner to my beef skewers.
Hah! A united trio of steak, bread, and sauce would show my solidarity with the world’s beef eaters. And add in the spicy with fresh serrano peppers and cayenne in the marinade and sauce — it’s a dream plate for sure.
The very special flatbread: tortilla santiagueña — and a trip to your butcher
For this delight from northern Argentina, the key ingredient is beef fat. That’s the whole point about making this very special type of tortilla to go with your churrasco — you make it with beef fat.
I rendered mine down from Bongani’s gift — simply melted it in a skillet for about twenty minutes over a low-medium heat until the fat ran out and then got drained into a bowl. It’s very easily done, and the aromas coming off that skillet will certainly sharpen your appetite for the treat to come.
A fine alternative would be store-bought, ready-rendered fat that’s typically sold in semi-hard blocks like butter, and is known as beef tallow, and occasionally as beef dripping.
Now, you could use lard, but strictly speaking, that’s rendered pork fat. And using that in this churrasco means you’d be missing the whole point — not to mention the fabulous flavors — of a dish that’s a full-on tribute to beef.
A word about that beef
Strips of skirt or flank steak would be super traditional for a south American beef churrasco. However, I wanted my skewered beef to keep as much of its marinade’s character as possible, and not evaporate too much over a high heat.
Also, I was looking for a very distinct contrast between the flavors of an outer char on the steak, and it still being rare on the inside. And that heavenly combo is achieved by loading the strips of beef onto the skewers in a sort of concertina fashion.
Now, skirt and flank are both fine cuts of beef, but they just don’t do ‘rare’ as well as rump does — so that’s what we’re using here.
Beef Churrasco with Argentine Flatbreads and Chimichurri
For the tortilla santiagueña — makes eight
- 3/4 cup beef fat or tallow
- 1 pound white bread flour the plain variety, not self-raising
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 3/4 tablespoon ground sea salt
For the beef churrasco skewers — makes four
- 2 pounds rump steak sliced into strips 1-1/2 inches wide, and about 6 inches long. The strips should each be about 1/3 inch thick. That thickness is important for how they’re going to be threaded onto the skewers. Either cut the rump to that thickness yourself, or ask your friendly butcher to do the whole neat job for you
- 6 baby onions peeled and halved top-to-tail
- 12 cherry tomatoes left whole
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt for sprinkling over the loaded skewers just before they hit the hot skillet
- 4 10- inch bamboo skewers
For the churrasco marinade
- 1 heaped teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground paprika
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground cumin
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and mashed to a fine paste
- 4 tablespoons lime juice approximately the juice of two fresh limes
- 4 tablespoons fresh orange juice approximately the juice of one orange
For the chimichurri sauce
- 2 serrano peppers sliced into 1/8 inch rounds, seeds and all
- 1 ounce fresh parsley leaves roughly chopped, stalks finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh oregano stalks removed, leaves finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and finely chopped
- 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Making the tortillas
- We’ll start with these because the simple dough needs to stand for a little while before you form it into your tortillas.
- In a small mixing bowl, stir the salt into the warm water until it’s completely dissolved.
- Melt the beef fat so it turns to liquid (I used the microwave for this), but is still easily cool enough to handle — it’s going to be the first thing that gets added to the flour and mixed in with your fingers. So, cool matters.
- Sieve the flour into a good size mixing bowl, and slowly stir in the beef fat so that it starts to combine with the flour. Now use your fingers to work the fat and flour together as much as you can. You’re looking to get a sort of crumbly, soft dough here, and for all the fat to combine with the flour.
- Add the salted water little by little, mixing all the while with your fingers until you get a ball of dough that just pulls away totally cleanly from the sides of the bowl. Good. Time now for some gentle kneading.
- Transfer the ball to a work surface and knead it for about four minutes. You’ll notice that the ball gets a slightly glossy sheen to its surface. That’s grand. Return the dough to your bowl, cover it with a dishcloth, and set it aside — but not in the refrigerator — for 30 minutes or so while you sort out the churrasco skewers and the chimichurri.
Marinating the churrasco beef
- Thoroughly stir together all the marinade’s ingredients in a bowl that’s big enough to easily hold all your strips of steak.
- Add the steak, and use your fingers to spread the marinade all over each of the strips. Once that’s done, set the bowl aside — but, once again, not in the refrigerator. The beef needs to marinade at room temperature for half an hour or so. And that gives you ample time to make your chimichurri sauce.
- Now, half an hour might not seem very long for marinading the beef. It’s long enough. Here’s why. Marinades don’t deeply penetrate meat, and this means they’re typically surface flavors — perhaps only seeping in for less than 1/8 inch. Also, there’s a fair amount of citrus in this marinade, and that acidity has the effect of slightly ‘cooking’ the meat before it even meets any heat. So, 30 minutes or so is just fine.
Making the chimichurri sauce
- This is really easy. Simply stir all the ingredients together in a pleasing little serving jug. And then stir them again very thoroughly — and I mean very thoroughly. Done.
Assembling the churrasco skewers
- I used four, ten-inch bamboo skewers, interspersing the strips of rump with halved baby onions and whole cherry tomatoes.
- Begin by folding each strip of rump so that you get a concertina of steak in a blocky shape that’s about 1 ½ inches square.
- Now load each skewer so that the repeated sequence runs steak, onion, steak, tomato — until the skewer’s full. You want to arrange the steak-blocks so that each skewer ends up looking like a square-sided oblong. Ideally, end the run with a securing half of onion. Set the skewers on a plate in readiness for their searing, fast cooking.
Forming and cooking the tortillas
- Divide the dough into eight equal pieces and shape them with your hands into rounds. One by one, place each round onto a lightly floured work surface, and use a rolling pin to form them into circular shapes about 1/4 inch thick. Roughly circular is fine. That 1/4 inch thickness is more important than achieving perfect circles.
- Heat a big skillet on a high heat. I used a deep, heavy, 12-inch one that would later also hold all four of my loaded skewers at the same time.
- Let the skillet get good and hot and add the first tortilla. Let it cook for 90 seconds and then flip it over. You want to get some dark-ish, golden patches of slight char on each side. Flip the tortilla again if you feel it needs a little more of that charring high heat.
- As soon as each one’s cooked, remove it from the skillet and wrap them all together in a dry dish cloth to keep them warm and retain their moisture. Good. Time for some speedy searing of your churrasco skewers.
Cooking the skewers
- Return your big skillet to a high heat. As it’s heating, drizzle the olive oil all over the loaded skewers. Now sprinkle them all over with the salt.
- As soon as the skillet’s good and hot, add the skewers in a single layer. Keep the heat on high, and let the skewers sear for 90 seconds or so on each of their four, flat-ish sides.
- Other than turning them, don’t mess with them. Just let them sit on that high heat, so they get a nice char on each side. Done. You’re ready to serve.
- Present each happy beef lover with two tortillas and a churrasco skewer. Serve the chimichurri alongside so they can help themselves.